What does the name ‘Don Juan’ mean to you? No doubt you can think of various characters with the name and attributes of Juan, the archetypal womaniser.
Given that the heroes in my Andalucían Nights series are all strong, virile, handsome Spanish men, the legend of Don Juan resonated with me as I wrote.
It dates back to the seventeenth century, when a dramatist called Gabriel Téllez wrote a play under his pen name, Tirso de Molina, entitled El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). In the play, Tirso portrays Don Juan as a seducer of women, suave and smooth and devilish. A wealthy man, women are his sport: he lives to conquer. Tirso wanted to send a message that one cannot sin throughout life expecting merely to repent on the deathbed and enter heaven, but must live a good life; otherwise, consequences would ensue. In Tirso’s original version, the dastardly Don Juan murders the father of a girl he has seduced, and upon his own death he is condemned by God.
Since Tirso’s play, many writers have seized on the character of Don Juan and reimagined him for new cultures and times. The ending is the most reinterpreted element of the story. In the Don Giovanni version, Don Juan refuses to repent. In Espronceda’s version, ‘Don Felix’ enters hell through his own choice. In Zorrilla’s take, Don Juan solicits and is granted a pardon from God.
Versions of Don Juan include:
Poems: Don Juan(1821) by Lord Byron;El estudiante de Salamanca (1840)by José de Espronceda.
Plays: Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre (1665) by Molière; Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by José Zorrilla; Don Juan (1959) adaptation by Bertolt Brecht.
Operas: Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Réminiscences de Don Juan (1841) by Franz Liszt.
Movies: most notably Adventures of Don Juan (1948) starring Errol Flynn; Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973) with Brigitte Bardot; Don Juan DeMarco (1995)starring Johnny Depp; Don Juan (1998) with Penélope Cruz and Emmanuelle Béart.
Don Juan also inspired Victor Hugo in Les Misèrables, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, in which the Phantom is writing an opera focused on the legend entitled Don Juan Triumphant.
Clearly, the legend of Don Juan has inspired many creative types – even writers like Jane Austen, who said of Don Juan: ‘I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust.’
For me, in writing Indiscretion and Masquerade, I was most interested in how the Don Juan type Spanish culture relates to the idea of honra, which is an important theme in both of the books.
In the Don Juan legend, Juan is a man without honour in the true sense of the word. He feels nothing for the women he leaves behind, who are merely a number – a notch on his bedpost, as they say. And yet, the women he seduces do not have the same luxury of living without the constraints of the Spanish honra. If they are seduced outside of wedlock, they are dishonoured; and that dishonour extends to their entire family.
Although Don Juan is a centuries-old legend, the questions it raises about honour remain relevant in Indiscretion (1950s) and Masquerade (1970s).
In Indiscretion, Salvador feels bound by honour to another woman. Is that honour misplaced? Can a woman, in fact, be just as much a Don Juan as a man? Will the heroine Alexandra lose out because of the seductive wiles of her adversary, a young and cunning gypsy?
In Masquerade, Luz must question the importance of the traditional honra as it relates to her own blossoming, and the sexual revolution being driven by Spanish women in the 1970s. Should the men she is torn between – Andrès and Leandro – protect her honour? Should she hold herself back, and save herself until marriage? Or should she redefine honour for a young woman in the new Spain that is emerging?
Ultimately, in each of my books the hero is not the Don Juan of the original Tirso play. But he has a little of the legend in him. He is not about control and conquest; but he can make the heroine’s knees weak and her heart flutter in her chest. I imagine him having something of the Johnny Depp characterisation in Don Juan DeMarco:
‘There are only four questions of value in life… What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same: only love.’
Now that, honour aside, is a Don Juan to set a writer’s pen aflame!